In the latest MCA Introduces James Wallin meets Oakman Inns founder Peter Borg-Neal at the £10m Royal Foresters in Ascot to talk investment, unforeseen obstacles, the power of premium and the value of wisteria.

“Relief is the main emotion”, Peter Borg-Neal admits as he shows me around his biggest launch to date.

“We’ve had a busy year so far and several openings, but in the back of my mind there was always this place. I never doubted that it was worth the investment but if this had opened with anything but a bang….”

The Oakman Inns founder trails off as he looks round a rampacked Tuesday lunchtime at the £10m pub, The Royal Foresters in Ascot. When Oakman’s chairman turns up for an impromptu lunch shortly after there is plenty of bang on display for the company’s bucks.

Less than three weeks after opening, and still without the benefit of the 24 guest rooms, the site is already generating £83,000 net a week when I visit.

While the opening has been a successful one, that victory was hard-won. The launch was delayed, after being hit by extreme weather and a litany of other misfortunes, and ended up missing a certain local horse race by a matter of weeks. Borg-Neal admits this was devastating but is already thinking about next year, having sold out the accommodation for the duration of Royal Ascot 2019.

A chainsaw opening

Construction was still underway when the site officially launched, with a traditional ribbon-cutting eschewed for something for more spectacular – a chainsaw-wielding arboriculturalist hacking through a log. On the day I visit I nab the last remaining parking space, with a fifth of the car park still taken over by construction vehicles. Borg-Neal is also still debating the finishing touches to the rooms. All of this makes the initial weekly takings seem even more impressive. Borg-Neal is confident the site will eventually be a £5m-a-year pub.

The building has been operated as a pub for 140 years and was originally run by Charles Bates, the first landlord recorded in Kelly’s Directory.

For many years it was owned by Whitbread and run as a Beefeater and Premier Inn, before its closure in April 2015. Greene King acquired the site with plans to turn it into a Farmhouse Inn but the plans came to nothing and it was taken on by Oakman Inns at the end of 2016.

Borg-Neal has been careful to consult the community and take on board their key concerns about the pub. It quickly became clear that the pub’s iconic wisteria was not to be messed with and the gold-plated lettering emblazoned across the frontage was a winner.

He was also keen to preserve the pub feel to what was inevitably going to be a high-volume food outlet. To that end the front of the pub is given over to the bar, complete with easy chairs and water bowls for dogs.

A canvass for hero products

The bar stretches around the corner into the main dining area, served by both an open kitchen and a separate pizza kitchen. The hero products are the pizzas and meat and fish cooked on the Josper Grill, however there is a wider selection taking in pastas, salads and sandwiches, as well as the traditional Sunday Roast.

Past the main dining room, there is an 80-cover function space with its own bar, which can be closed off from the rest of the site or incorporated at peak times. There is also outside seating for a further 80 at the front and to the side of the venue.

Borg-Neal is conscious that as well as a statement of intent for Oakman, the in-vestment is a wider indication of the benefits the pub sector brings to the wider community. The site employs 100 people and a full-time HR manager was in place from the start.

He says: “The community was desperate to get their pub back and they have reacted really positively to what we’ve done. It’s a source of employment, of in-vestment and it’s brought back a community hub. These are the things the industry should be proud of.”

Strong return on investment

Oakman is seeing a strong return on investment across its estate, with like-for-like sales up 10% in the 19 weeks to Sunday 11 August. This was made up of a mixture of wet sales growth of c9% and food growing c12% with accommodation showing a modest increase.

Borg-Neal says: “I think it’s key to note that we saw our biggest growth on food. There is a lot talked about the renaissance of wet-led but I still believe the key to real long-term success is in premium, whether that’s food or drink. Customers are looking for an all round better experience and we’ve been giving it to them.”

The Royal Foresters takes the group to 23 sites in its 10th year of operation and there is a strong pipeline for the rest of the year and into 2019, including the Café Rouge site in Wokingham, the Loch Fyne in Farnham and two further Beech Houses.

Borg-Neal insists he has no intention of slowing down despite the challenges presented by the coming year, saying: “I was totally against Brexit and I’m still concerned about the impact, but that doesn’t mean we are going to stand still. Apart from anything else me and the team would just get restless.”

No shortage of backers

As with any highly-regarded operator the future direction of Oakman is often discussed. It has the benefit of a supportive group of long-term investors but eventually some sort of exit will inevitably be sought. The early success of City Pub Group as a listed company may prove some inspiration and similarly there would be no shortage of trade or private equity backers keen to get their hands on a premium estate.

The fledgling Beech House estate also presents clear opportunities for Oakman to create a separate brand that could eventually be spun off under its own management team.